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February 27, 2009
By Roger Emile Stouff
Thereís two kinds of dog people: Those who believe they are mere dumb animals and those who believe theyíre something more.
There is a part of me that, no matter how much I love Bogie, our year-old yellow Lab, regrets the life Iíve given him, and struggles with some amount of guilt over it.
"Stay," I tell him when heís getting too rambunctious in the house, playing chase with Patches. "Bogie, stay."
When I was growing up, we let our dogs run free. It was just the way then. If they got into the neighborís garbage or chased his cows, you gave Ďem a good walloping they wouldnít soon forget, and if that didnít work, the neighbor tied down his trash cans and fixed the fences on his cow pasture. Thatís the kind of world it was, where people understood each other and worked things out.
In those days, if you saw more than one or two cars on our street a day it was an event, and they crept along that narrow, ditch-flanked road carefully. Today the road is wider, and the speed limit higher. Today, people let their dogs run free with no manners, there are strays, some with bad attitudes, that wander from yard to yard looking for food or trouble. In the old days, everybody knew which dog belonged to which neighbor and would bring them home for you if they got into a mess.
No more. That world is gone, taking so many of the other things I miss dearly with it.
My puppy gets plenty of attention. Probably too much, because heís spoiled. You can suddenly raise your hand to Bogie as if to strike him and heíll wiggle his tail and grin in excitement, because heís never been struck. But heís extraordinarily intelligent and adaptable to new circumstances we present him with. Still, many times, I see in him a need for that long-ago world I just described, even though he never lived in it. Bogie is a part-time house dog. He spends evenings and nights in the house, sleeps in his kennel and stays there when weíre away for his own protection and that of the furniture. He spends his days outside.
Thereís something between us that we both understand, but I canít quite justify it or vindicate myself. I can only admit that it is fear and my great affection for him that causes it, and beg him forgiveness.
From 7wks, to his first birthday...
For I see in Bogieís eyes, there in the yard, the great longing I feel in my own heart. I glimpse in his brown pupils and flaring nostrils as he leans into the breeze and perks his ears up, whimpering ever, ever so slightly, the need: Out there. Far and away. Over the ridge, past the trees, through the water.
Yeah, I know. Youíll think Iím anthropomorphizing. Assigning human values, thoughts and feelings to an animal. But youíre wrong. Wrong, because that term was invented by somebody who leans to the right, to the "dogs donít go to heaven" school. Iím with Will Rogers on that one: If they donít, I want to go wherever they went.
We walk to the bayou and romp around there. We get in the truck and go to a big field with a pond in it and I let him run like the wind, swim, be a dog. Soon, heíll be ready to go to the creeks with me, and swim in cold, fast water, climb hills. But I long for the days when I could let him be free. I canít find the courage in myself. The road is too full of fast-moving cars now, and dogs being taught to fight and kill becoming too common. The world is just too infected with festering people.
And when I say heíll "soon" be ready to go with me to the forest, itís because Iím not done restricting his freedoms. Oh, no sir, overlord that I must be. He must learn to walk at my heel. Not chase rabbits, deer or turkeys. Not bound and jump on other people for affection. In the end, Iím making him respectable, instead of the pure, joyous soul he started out.
"Stay," I tell him when weíre walking and a squirrel catches his attention; heís trembling, quaking in aching need to chase after it. "Stay, Bogie." He glances at me, wags his tail a little in acquiescence, but I donít feel very deserving.
Is he happy? I believe so. He gets so much attention from Suzie and I. He is learning to interact with Patches, slowly. He could have done much, much worse than coming to live with us.
Am I happy? Certainly. I have rewards and affections of my own too numerous to list. Mine is a life of mostly satisfactions, to be sure.
But do we both look out Ė he from his back yard and me from my concrete building office Ė and feel the stirring of freedom, just past the point where we can see no farther? To be sure. Because neither of us will ever be satisfied with seeing the end of the trail, the headwaters of the river, the edge of the forestÖweíll always wonder, Bogie and I, what lies beyond.
Early on, I bought him an ID tag. "Sit, Bogie. Stay." And I snapped it on, an Orwellian icon with his name, my home phone number and my cell phone number.
"There," I told him. "Itís 1984 all over again." He responded with a stolen kiss on my chin since I was kneeling there, then turned his head toward the north and gave a distant gaze.
So rather than be a dog, he must learn to be a pet. He must learn social behavior and interaction. He must learn that as much as he loves people, they may not love him in return. He must learn that he has to stop, heel, sit, lay down, donít chase the cat, stay out of the flower garden and that, at the point of the yard where he can go no farther, the landscape of dreams and hopes springs eternal. A smart dog would learn these things on his own through trial and error, by experience and environment. But we donít have that luxury, because we are both shackled by the expectations of a world where freedom is highly regarded as a noble ambition, but really has become a myth.
I feed him the best food I can afford, no artificial colors, preservatives, no corn (dogs canít digest corn) and as much human-grade meat in it as possible; he plays fetch and gets regular treats, but has to earn them, instead of just my sharing them; he rides in the boat and nips at the spray at the sides, and he watches birds fly overhead with longing.
I dream, sometimes, that we live on a ranch or range in some place like west Texas, or Montana. There would be no roads, just good country folks as neighbors. There Bogie, and his aged-matriarch Daisy, could be what they are at their essence: dogs, and companions. Because for tens of thousands of years humans and dogs have chosen to be companions, and there has to be a deep-rooted reason for that. I think that for the majority of that time period it was a mutual admiration and trust, then we got so-called "civilized" and, out of loyalty and faithfulness and affection, our dogs followed us to the gallows of city-dwelling, weekends and morbidity.
Judging by the outcome, has there ever been a greater devotion?
But heís my best pal, and accepts all my shackles and regulations with a wag of the tail or a lowering of the head when I get too insistent with him Ė he flops over on his back to expose his belly in submission. No matter what I do wrong, Iím automatically forgiven, and heíll let me know immediately that heís dang sure not going to be the one to break up millennia of friendship between our kinds. Whatever he catches the scent of on a breeze coming from far away, hears or senses beyond the back yard, he doesnít blame me for its inaccessibility.
So hopefully weíll grow old together, he and I. Their lives are so heartbreakingly short, but the way they live it is so admirably joyous. All but the most abused, starving dog just spins with a zest for life, an inner pup within even the oldest hound. They are examples to us, though we disdain them. I believe it is because we are jealous.
Heíll likely be gray about the same time I am; maybe slow down near the age where I am feeling less like hiking high hills and more like lounging on the porch together. In those final days, weíll reminisce about the spotted bass we caught on a cold, fast stream; the quail we hit or missed in a field of grass, and the great moments of our time together.
Barring any unforeseen health issues with either of us, heíll probably be gone long before me, and at this moment I canít imagine heíd be anything but the last dog for me. And Iím sure Ė as certain as I am of most anything Ė that when I leave this world, where ever it is Will Rogers and I go, thereíll be at least one soul waiting for me with bounding joy and sloppy, wet kisses that I hope will mean, "I waited for you. And you didnít even have to say, ĎStay.í"